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While I strongly advocate using language carefully to create the desired reality in the minds of your receiver, I think calling an organization’s non-donors “future donors” may cause some confusion that sets the organization and its fundraisers up for disappointment. Let me explain.

I got an email last week from a college who found my article about why some alumni never give. They wanted ideas to engage their non-donors and thought my research might have some answers. In reality, they had great alumni giving numbers! Two-thirds of their alumni had given to the college at some point in time and 20% gave regularly. Most colleges would kill for those numbers! They wanted to know the best way to engage the remaining third who have never supported their alma mater.

This conversation got me thinking about the fallacy of “future donors” and the implication that everyone associated with your organization will, at some point, become one of its donors. That is simply not true. Let’s look at the fallacy in more detail.

Fallacy #1: People “should” give to your organization. Nothing compels people to give to your organization. In fact, the ability to choose which organizations to support – or not—provides one of the distinguishing factors of the nonprofit sector over the public sector (read: taxes!). Every organization should strive to attract and retain those individuals (and companies) with a passionate connection to your organization and mission while recognizing that not everyone will have that passion for your mission. That includes your clients and, in this case, alumni.

Fallacy #2: If they love me, they will give. I do not know why these alumni choose not to give to their alma mater, but even if they had a wonderful experience, that experience does not always translate into giving. In fact, most reasons to not support an organization have little to do with the organization itself or their feelings toward it. My research suggested that alumni who never give to their alma mater:

  • Saw their education as a transaction (they gave money and got a degree) not a charity. Other organizations who sell a product or service (e.g., health care, arts) would likely also suffer from this perception
  • Did not feel they could make a difference with their giving. When we hype million dollar gifts, the “little guy” feels left out
  • Could not afford to attend the college today did not want to support someone else’s child to attend
  • Wanted to support a more “basic” human need than higher education which they perceived as for the “privileged”
  • Did not give logically or their spouse made giving decisions. While we assume that everyone has solid reasons to give, in reality, they give more with their heart or gut than their heads

Fallacy #3: Every other organization does it better. In reality, most organizations struggle to attract what they perceive as a sufficient number of donors and donations. Knowing the national benchmarks for your industry can provide some guidance. Only about 65% of all Americans contribute to any charity; this college already exceeds that benchmark. In higher education, nearly 75% of alumni nationwide have never given to their alma mater and only a little over 10% make a gift in a given year. Again, most colleges would kill for this school’s numbers. Putting your experience in context can give you a little perspective.

Fallacy #4: We need more donors! Not always. Here, quality over quantity can improve your bottom line. While I do not know the retention rate of donors for this college, I assume it falls close to the national average. (Only 20% of alumni giving annually when 66% have given at some time makes that a pretty safe bet.) The Fundraising Effectiveness Project found that the organizations in their study retained only 46% of their donors. Retaining more donors can result in significantly higher net revenue at a lower costs than recruiting new donors. Studies estimate that it costs from 5-10 times more to attract a new donors than retain a current donor; from an ROI perspective, working on donor retention trumps donor recruitment, especially from a set of donors who have repeatedly demonstrated no interest in your organization.

So what can you do with the “future donors” or “never givers” in your database? Invest the appropriate amount of energy and attention to them, focusing instead on retaining your current donors. You may do everything “right” and your message or mission just does not resonate with someone. That’s okay. Try your best and move on.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to Living Proof Exhibit.

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Linda Wastyn
M. Linda Wastyn, Ph.D., President of Wastyn & Associates, has nearly 30 years of grant development and fundraising experience. Founded in 2011, Wastyn & Associates provides grant development, fundraising consulting, strategic planning facilitation, and leadership development for organizations across the country.
Linda Wastyn